May 4, 2009
the monday interview with Andrew Tjioe
Rebel with a cause
The restaurateur who takes pride in being a non-conformist stays focused when the going gets tough
The child in Mr Andrew Tjioe, 50, greeted me when he propped up his knee on the white booth seat in Tung Lok Singatures at VivoCity and pulled up a pant leg to reveal his left ankle.
Pointing to the pale scar that was the result of a bicycle accident when he was nine, he says: 'I could see the bone but I didn't cry. My mother almost fainted, though.'
This tough-as-nails mettle has helped him found and drive one of Singapore's best-known restaurant brands.
The Indonesian-born Tjioe is executive chairman of food and beverage (F&B) group Tung Lok Restaurants, which has more than 30 outlets in Asia, including China, Japan and India.
And he is determined to ride out the current global economic slowdown.
Tung Lok, which has been listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange since 2001, posted a $2.51 million net loss from last April to September.
'There is no need to be a crybaby,' he says. 'Whatever comes down will bounce back and this crisis will be over, definitely. What we need to do is make adjustments along the way so that we survive and emerge stronger.'
His response: stay focused on the basics that make a restaurant truly great. 'The food must be special and fantastic, and the service, impeccable.'
He says his latest restaurant concept, Tung Lok Classics, to be officially unveiled at the Chinese Swimming Club later this month, will embody these traits.
While it will serve the traditional cuisines of various Chinese dialect groups such as Hunan and Sichuan, its presentation and decor will be anything but typical Chinese.
And that is to be expected of a restaurateur who calls himself a 'non-conformist' and says of his foray into the F&B business: 'I found the right place to be rebellious.'
The third of five children and the only son of Fujian-born parents - his father was a well-to-do entrepreneur - he had a mischief-filled childhood in Jakarta.
He says: 'I was what my mother would call hyperactive. When I was seven or eight, she used to chain me with a dog chain to something heavy, like a table, so I wouldn't run off during the monsoon season to fly kites on the roof of my neighbour's house.'
It was only after his family moved to Singapore for the Tjioe children to receive a Chinese education that he, then 12, toned down.
He says: 'I became more introverted because I didn't speak the language (Mandarin) well.'
His family conversed mostly in Bahasa Indonesia when they lived in Jakarta.
So he channelled his energy to books and earned the grades to enter The Chinese High School, then Hwa Chong Junior College, followed by Oklahoma State University, which he chose over the popular colleges on the East or West coast of the United States because its tuition fees were 'more moderate'.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration, he returned to Singapore to work as a corporate planner with the Prima food group.
The eager young man, however, offered to help out in the evenings after work where he supervised the operations at his father's Charming Garden restaurant at the former Novotel Orchid Inn (now Copthorne Orchid Hotel).
The now defunct restaurant opened in 1980 and specialised in Hunan fare.
He says: 'I was free at night, so I volunteered to help out in the evenings.'
Growing up surrounded by good food, he naturally came to appreciate gastronomy.
His housewife mother is an accomplished cook who prepared most of the family's meals (her speciality is pansit, a thin-skinned wonton from the Heng Hwa dialect group), while his father would take the family out for meals every week.
They would dine at both new eateries as well as established names such as the now defunct Cantonese restaurant Mayflower.
As he became more involved in Charming Garden, he realised he was partial to the restaurant business.
He says: 'I like the restaurant business because whatever you do, the result is spontaneous and people notice immediately.'
He cites the instances when he introduced at Charming Garden individually wrapped toothpicks with a mint-flavoured tip and packaged wet towels, which were then uncommon in Chinese restaurants, as examples of minor changes that made diners sit up and notice the establishment.
With the profits from Charming Garden, he ploughed $1.12 million into opening his first restaurant, Tung Lok, Cantonese for 'happy together', in Liang Court in 1984.
The eatery attracted early attention for its inauspicious colour palette of mostly black, blue and silver, with hints of gold.
He says: 'Some people thought the colours made it look like a funeral home, but I told them a funeral home doesn't look so glam. After a while, though, people got used to it.'
The initial fuss gave way to plaudits as the novel and elaborate Chinese imperial and state banquets it organised, featuring chefs from China's prestigious Beijing Hotel and Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, made it a household name synonymous with Chinese fine-dining. (It closed in 2007 when Liang Court revamped.)
Driven by its success, he went on to open other upscale Chinese restaurants such as Paramount Restaurant in East Coast Road, LingZhi Vegetarian Restaurant with an outlet in Liat Towers and Noble House in Shenton Way, all of which are still around after at least 18 years in the business.
He also rolled out innovative dining concepts such as Club Chinois in Orchard Parade Hotel, an upmarket dining establishment serving modern Chinese food that is artistically plated and individually apportioned.
He also opened Tung Lok's first overseas outlet, Taipan, a fine dining Chinese restaurant in Jakarta in 1992.
It is this zeal and passion for creating new restaurant concepts that earned him the respect of the internationally celebrated chef Susur Lee.
Says Lee, 51, who has known Mr Tjioe for more than 10 years since the first World Gourmet Summit in 1997 and helped to conceptualise Club Chinois: 'Andrew loves food and coming up with restaurant concepts and that makes him more than just another businessman. When we travel together to look for good food, he is always looking for inspiration.
'He is a creative restaurateur full of passion for what he does.'
Lee remembers an occasion when he and Tjioe were visiting Shanghai and found themselves hungry after a night of drinking.
'Andrew said to me: 'Don't worry, I make the best gong zai mien (instant noodles). I'll fix you up with some.' So we went to a convenience store, grabbed the noodles, and he gave me a whole animated run-down on how to cook them - at four in the morning.'
With more than 20 restaurants in Singapore, Tjioe tries to visit at least one outlet every day but also makes sure he spends time with his family.
Married to a banker, he has two sons, aged nine and six. The family lives in a semi-detached house in Bukit Timah.
He sees his children off to school in the morning and, like his father used to do, takes his family out for meals every week.
He adds: 'I will take my elder son to my new restaurants and ask him if he likes the food. If the child likes it, then most customers will like it. They (children) are sensitive eaters with no taste prejudice and you can definitely depend on their tastebuds.'
As confident as he sounds, Tung Lok's is not a flawless track record.
The Mao-themed House of Mao in China Square, which served fiery Hunanese cuisine, and The Red Book in Orchard Hotel, which dished out modern Asian food, closed in 2001 after just a few years.
Another failure was Asian (pronounced ah-si-an), a joint venture with a hip Parisian lifestyle bar-bistro that turned the heritage Thong Chai Medical Hall in Eu Tong Sen Street into a swanky Buddha Bar look-alike.
Instead of earning raves for its pan-Asian cuisine, it made the news for its waitresses' uniforms - slinky black numbers from high fashion label Kenzo which were best worn bra-less.
It went the way of House of Mao in 2002.
Yet Tjioe says he has 'no regrets' about any of the restaurants he has opened.
'Of course we've failed before, but out of 10 (restaurants), maybe we've failed three times, that is not too bad. That'll not discourage us from moving forward.
'Generations of restaurateurs on, we're still here and calling the shots.'
my life so far
'She always said, if you don't put your heart into the food, the good is not going to taste nice.'
On his mother's influence on the way he treats food and the restaurant business
'Studying overseas, I had to cook, otherwise I would have no food to eat. The cafeterias and restaurants were too expensive and I was trying to save money. Now I can easily roll out 10 to 15 dishes, and I cook very fast.'
On learning to cook out of necessity while studying at Oklahoma State University
'No matter how serious it is, I've learnt not to look at the circumstances, but to look beyond. Instead of looking at (where we are) as being in the middle of the crisis, why don't we look at it as we're approaching the end of the tunnel?'
On how he copes with the economic slowdown. He is pictured above in 2007 with wife, Linda, and sons, Anlai (now nine) and Anxiang (now six).
'I am very vain'
Andrew Tjioe confesses to being 'very vain'.
He arrives at the interview wearing an olive green Issey Miyake jacket with a subtly pleated texture and vermillion stitching over a white collared shirt and black pants.
The ensemble could appear sloppy, but he pulls off the casual chic look effortlessly.
Then before the camera starts clicking, he dabs his face with a sheet of facial oil blotter and takes a moment to tidy his hair in front of a mirror.
Growing up in a house in which the walls were adorned with Chinese paintings and calligraphy owned by his father, Zhou Ying Nan, he was always drawn to beautiful things.
In the 1980s, he was a big fan of the late Italian designer Gianni Versace because of his vibrant colours.
'But now, when I look at the pictures of myself then, I will go 'Ah! I would wear like that?''
His style principle has since shifted from gaudy to simple, understated elegance with a preference for clothes in shades of grey, black and white.
Designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, as well as Giorgio Armani, appeal to him today.
'Because I'm in the lifestyle business, I have to keep pace with it,' he explains.
He also makes it a point to exercise four times a week at the gym, for between an hour and 90 minutes each time.
'Age is catching up. I have to be healthy to have a lot more energy for the business.'